Hunzeker: Manatee indigent health care sales tax would cut property taxes

skennedy@bradenton.comMarch 5, 2013 

MANATEE -- Property taxes could drop 26 percent for residents of municipalities, and 13 percent for those in unincorporated areas if a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for indigent health care costs is approved, a county official predicted Tuesday.

It would comprise one part of a three-pronged county strategy to accomplish property tax relief to residents, officials said.

"You're paying for health care today with property taxes," Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said.

The sales tax hike, which would generate an estimated $23 million a year, would ensure fairness because it would rely upon a broader base of taxpayers, Hunzeker said.

A third of the sales tax would be paid either by people who don't own property or who are visitors to the county, he said.

The measure also would promote economic development and lessen the impact of what he called the "state Legislature's attack on property taxes," he said.

Other parts of the county's effort to reduce property taxes include removing $28 million in patrol costs incurred by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office away from city residents, who already pay for municipal police services, said Nick Azzara, the county's information outreach coordinator.

A final part involves instituting utility franchise fees and stormwater utility fees, Azzara said.

"We're not talking about increasing the size of government," Hunzeker said. "This is a diversification of revenue sources with a broader base of payers."

Manatee County commissioners next Tuesday are expected to consider calling a referendum on raising the sales tax from 6.5 percent to 7 percent. The election would be in June.

Commissioner Betsy Benac wanted to know how the county intended to put together its new plan.

"If we're going to have this new source of revenues, and talk about replacing property taxes, how is this going to make it better?" she asked.

She also wanted to know it if would be "growing" the population that would be served, relative to what's going on with health care in general.

Hunzeker replied that events on the state and federal levels, meaning national health care reform, provided an "interesting backdrop."

As to whether the federal Affordable Care Act might take care of the problem, Hunzeker replied, "I'm a bit of a pessimist on this issue, that they're going to do anything to help us."

Deputy County Administrator Karen Windon told the Herald last week that no matter what happens with the Affordable Health Care Act, a different way to help the poor is needed when county funds run out in 2015. Allowing voters to have their say during a June special election "would change the face of this community," she told the commission.

But if the federal reform does succeed, the county could rescind or just stop collecting the additional sales tax, Hunzeker said.

"You can even rescind it before it goes into play," he said. "Put a plan together, so you're not waiting until the very end, like the feds, and if something happens, backtrack; it's better than not having a plan."

Commissioner Carol Whitmore predicted the Florida Legislature would not support federal officials in their effort to expand Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor.

She predicted Florida lawmakers would not embrace federally-mandated health care exchanges to provide affordable health insurance policies to those who do not have them.

"They're not going to do it," she said. "Don't count on anybody helping us out."

When the county sold Manatee Memorial Hospital, the proceeds went into a health care fund to pay for indigent care, but that money is running out, officials have said.

About $20 million remains in that fund, but in two years it is expected to be exhausted.

In 2013, the county is projected to spend about $9.5 million from the health care fund and $13.5 million in general revenues on community health, according to Nick Azzara, county information outreach coordinator.

The commission is slated to meet at 9 a.m. next Tuesday at County Center, 1112 Manatee Ave. W.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter@sarawrites.com.

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